Lori Trahan felt a rush of nerves as she accepted her first fare as an Uber driver. Seeking to find out why the ride-hailing service lacked female drivers, the then-consultant found herself about to let a total stranger into her car. A new, potentially unknown location popped up for her to drive to, with little time to adjust and a waiting passenger in the back seat.
“There’s definitely that first-time hurdle where you hit the accept and you’re driving to pick up someone new and there’s an adrenaline and there’s an anxiety that goes along with that,” said Trahan, now the congresswoman from Massachusetts’ 3rd District. “The second you get over that, it’s unbelievable that after you do it once so much of that hesitation and that reticence, it just melts away.”
Trahan said she was able to use her experience to provide insight for her client, Uber Technologies Inc., in addressing its lack of female driver representation. Later, she saw the lack of female representation in Congress and decided to run, in part, so she could find out herself some of the barriers that keep women out of office. From the corporate world to Congress, Trahan’s own experiences and a belief in the benefits that diversity brings remain significant influences.
Trahan’s turn to politics came after former Rep. Niki Tsongas retired, vacating a district that included Trahan’s native Lowell. Trahan said she immediately knew she wanted to run for Congress after Tsongas announced her exit. Still, she had concerns: How would she make it work? What about her job leading a consulting firm and her children?
Trahan ran for the seat, narrowly winning the Democratic primary and prevailing in the general election to join Congress among a historically diverse class of new members. Now she hopes that diversity will be a model for women’s advancement in other areas, including in corporate America, where she previously worked as a technology company’s lone female executive.
Women “can think of a million reasons because we are empathetic; we are the caretakers,” Trahan said. “You’ll think of a million reasons to talk yourself out of it. And if anything, I hope what 2018 did was just give women the license and the confidence to just take that step because you’ll figure everything else out.”
The value of hard work
Trahan, 45, grew up in Massachusetts where her father was an iron worker and her mother had “scrappy” working jobs to supplement his paycheck, she said. As one of four daughters, Trahan said she developed a “swagger and an outspokenness” and learned the value of hard work from her family and of diversity in school in Lowell.
She’s now raising her own two daughters as well as three stepsons with her husband, David Trahan, a home builder.
After attending Georgetown University on a volleyball scholarship, Trahan worked on the Hill for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Martin T. Meehan, eventually serving as his chief of staff. She then turned to the business world and worked in leadership positions including chief revenue officer at former digital advertising and data company ChoiceStream, before leading consulting firm Concire Leadership Institute as chief executive.
In her business work, Trahan experienced being one of few women in leadership. Companies are grappling with a lack of diversity among executives and board members amid pressure from investors and lawmakers.
“It is a heavy burden when you’re one,” said Trahan, who experienced being a company’s only female executive while at ChoiceStream. “You changing the conversation alone — bringing that every day, every meeting — is a tall, tall order.”
That’s a problem Trahan homed in on at Concire. She was an early partner helping to launch the business and eventually joined full-time, said co-founder Anne Morriss, who has since launched The Leadership Consortium. Morriss said Concire’s original mission was to improve employee morale, boosting customers’ experiences in the process. Under Trahan’s leadership, the business focused on creating work environments where diversity can flourish.
Clients ranged from San Jose, Calif.-based eBay Inc., a public tech company, to privately held Louisiana hospital operator Ochsner Health System, according to a spokesperson for Trahan. There was also Concire’s work with San Francisco-based Uber — which faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination in its workforce and unethical business practices — on recruiting women drivers, when Trahan signed up to drive herself.
“I know that experience gave her insight that she couldn’t get otherwise,” said Morriss, who donated to Trahan’s campaign, “and I know that it took her 30 seconds to reach the conclusion that that was the right thing to do. As close as she could get to walking in someone else’s shoes, she’s going to do it.”
Trahan’s Uber driving impacted Concire’s final recommendations to the company. The firm hypothesized safety concerns were a barrier for women. Trahan’s time driving showed her that while that was one component, other issues contributed too. Experiencing the anxiety of the first ride herself, she “instantly understood” that preparedness, training and getting through ride one were also contributors.
Trahan’s work at Concire, which closed when she returned to politics, often involved trying to find when and why women left their companies and fix root causes. Advice she gave companies seeking to diversify included “clumping” — hiring several female board members, for example, rather than one so that conversations would naturally change. It’s a “win-win” for women and companies because businesses get a better return on a bold diversity investment and women are set up for more success when they’re joined by other women, she says.
To benefit from diversity and avoid groupthink, companies need to be sure they proactively seek perspectives from women and give people a “safe space” to share different viewpoints, Trahan said. Women with children often face additional barriers when workplace cultures value employees for things like working more hours or coming in early, which can be more complicated for them, she added.
A particular focus for public companies has been on gender diversity in boardrooms. Among members of Russell 3000 company boards, 18.5 percent are women, according to Equilar Inc. The topic has become a policy question as well: California became the first U.S. state to set a quota for board diversity, requiring public companies in the state to have at least one female board member by the end of this year and instituting higher mandates for larger boards over the next two years. A Democrat in New Jersey is proposing a similar mandate.
These diversity efforts are gaining emphasis as studies show having more women and racial and ethnic minorities among corporate leadership correlates with better business results. For example, a McKinsey & Co. report said companies with more gender diverse executives are more likely to outperform their industry average than companies with fewer women leaders. There was an even higher likelihood of better results for businesses with more ethnically diverse executives.
Trahan said it’s an important time for women to shape conversations in boardrooms and the ranks of senior leadership.
To raise representation of women in the workforce, Trahan advocates changes to the minimum wage, strengthening pay equity laws through the Paycheck Fairness Act (which the House passed Wednesday), creating a paid family leave system and education changes, including universal pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs. She’s in favor of ending the use of nondisclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration in cases of sexual harassment, practices some companies are re-evaluating amid the #MeToo movement.
Trahan supports a fellow Democrat’s bill mandating public companies disclose executive and board diversity to shareholders and the public and convening an advisory council of companies and investors to work with regulators in establishing best practices.
Companies having more regulation to comply with is a small price to pay for cultural change, Trahan said. “It’s a small hurdle for companies to have to clear in terms of administrative cost or compliance for us to do the right thing and make sure that people feel safe and valued and equal in the workplace.”
The largest lobbyist for American businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argues against several of these changes, including the Paycheck Fairness Act, which it says could punish employers for legitimate pay differences. The organization supports requiring board diversity disclosure.
“We think it’s important to have gender and race diversity on boards,” said Tom Quaadman, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. “We think it is something where the business community needs to be a constructive part of the solution and that by bringing people together, it helps to drive solutions to the problems rather than having one mandated by Congress. So we think this is one where stakeholders really need to join together to resolve these problems.”
Brenda Trenowden, global chair of the corporate gender diversity advocate 30% Club, said transparency about women in corporate leadership would help improve diversity, along with other supportive legislation. Ultimately, she believes businesses need to voluntarily diversify based on business benefits but says countries that are most successful have supportive policies that make it easier for families in the workplace and increase disclosure.
Many of Trahan’s policy objectives are in line with Democrats’ aims in the House, where the party holds a majority. The Republican-controlled Senate is less likely to act on these issues. Trahan said she hopes passing legislation in the House will create pressure on the Senate to act.
As Trahan works to execute her goals in Congress, she’s emphasizing the importance of women having a voice in each debate, echoing her calls for change in the corporate world. She wants the diversity the 2018 election ushered into Congress to serve as a model for businesses and other fields.
Trahan is one of 127 women in the 116th Congress, the highest representation of women in the legislature in U.S. history, according to the Pew Research Center. Her background in business adds another facet.
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Judith Durant, chair of the Lowell Democratic City Committee, first supported another candidate in Trahan’s crowded primary because she wanted a more progressive representative. She backed Trahan after she won the party’s nomination and said she’s doing an “awesome job” so far. Durant said she likes that Trahan brings additional experience beyond a political background to the office.
Her business background brings “another piece of experience to the House,” Durant said. “We’ve got people from all kinds of backgrounds, and I kind of like it that she hadn’t just been in politics all the while.”
Several months into her first term, Trahan said she’s seen the diversity of the Democratic Caucus influence discussions within the party and she has learned from the varied views on almost every issue and policy.
“I would so much prefer to sit in that room than a room where there’s instant agreement — we’re only talking about a couple things because we’re so homogeneous that there’s only two other ways to maybe think about this problem,” Trahan said.
“Look, sometimes it’s going to be tense and sometimes it’s going to be even frustrating,” she added. “But I think as long as we always hold on to our diversity is what makes us stronger and leaning into that rather than considering it like an anchor, I don’t think it’s going to weigh us down. I think it’s going to lift us up.”